Easing Boomer Stress Over Parents

July 12, 2002
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To most of us, an interesting if somewhat abstract fact came to light when the 2000 U.S. Census disclosed that the fastest-growing segment of our population is that which is over age 85.

But for people who are members of the post World War II baby-boom generation, the fact may not be quite so abstract.

It’s actually pretty concrete, considering that the Americans who now are nearing their mid-80s brought the first phase of the baby-boom generation into being — and now are beginning to need increasing amounts of time or energy or both from their 40s and 50s-something children.

The problem of children caring for aged parents is as old as humanity.

But according to Robert E. O’Toole, the sheer number of people becoming involved in such care — 34 million American parents and their 70 million children — is unprecedented. Too, this generation has a special American complication — distance, which finds Michigan middle-agers, for instance, trying to manage care for frail parents in, say, Florida.

O’Toole is the president of a Massachusetts firm named Informed Decisions Inc., which is trying to introduce what it calls eldercare services to this area.

According to O’Toole, while the population of the very elderly is growing rapidly, the funds available for their care and service is shrinking rapidly, too. “Steep cuts are occurring in the once-generous Medicare home health care benefit,” he said. “And with billions of federal dollars now needed to pay for the war on terrorism and to strengthen our economy, funds for programs for elders continue to grow scarce.”

What these facts mean to employers here and elsewhere, O’Toole claims, is that more of the burden of care is impinging upon baby boomers, the largest segment of the U.S labor force that happens to fill a substantial percentage of middle and senior management positions.

The caregivers in question, O’Toole said, have the skills, experience and long-term relationships that employers need to operate and compete effectively.

O’Toole’s firm is part of a consortium that has launched a specialty Web site — Elderlife Planning in the Workplace (www.ElderlifePlanning.com) — that focuses on helping employers and organizations plan for so-called elder issues.

He explained that the consortium — formed in 1998 — consists of elder care and elder life planning professionals who, he said, have been developing a preferred provider network to help companies deal with the complex needs of working caregivers, “many of whom work for employers who are caught in the dilemma of recognizing the need for such a benefit but find new benefits difficult to afford.”

The consortium’s Web site lists providers in only 13 states, Michigan not being among them. Significantly, though, Florida, California, North Carolina and Utah — all popular with elderly people from Michigan — are.

O’Toole says the consortium network of independent nurses, social workers, financial, legal and insurance specialists is trying to position itself to offer employers, associations and unions a comprehensive package of elder and disability services. Rates, he said, can be as low as a dollar per month per employee and, in other states, employees often have been happy to pay the bill themselves.

The network is called Elder Life Planning for Organizations (ELPO) and O’Toole said its members have agreed to offer discounts and to share the administrative overhead to provide a one-stop shopping benefit that saves time and reduces stress. 

“A majority of companies surveyed by benefits consultants William M. Mercer found work-life programs increased productivity,” O’Toole said.

“And in every case where employers have scientifically studied the results of their work-family programs, they have been found to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

“Apparently, people who are free of worry about what’s going on at home can be more productive at work.”

He indicated that one of the most attractive benefits of ELPO, too, is that it enables employees to offer group rate long-term care insurance to workers who become concerned about their own retirement and elder years. “Most long-term care insurance programs offered at the workplace are voluntary, with employees paying the full cost of their plan,” he said.

Too, he said the Web site is a valuable information clearinghouse concerning care and sources of help for the elderly.

“Since a growing number of working caregivers are also long-distance caregivers, sometimes living across the country from their aging parents,” he said, “this low-cost employee benefits plan provides information on services throughout the U.S., including a number of federal and state benefits programs for which the aging parent may be eligible.”

O’Toole said that managing the care of aging parents while trying to meet work responsibilities can be a problem for employers because it can take a heavy toll on employees’ work and family life.

He reports that among those who have provided hands-on care to aging parents:

  • 67 percent reported that it has had a significant effect on their family lives

  • 41 percent said that it interfered with their work.

  • 10 percent of those who have provided long-term care assistance said they had given up promotions or jobs as a result.

“Employers are learning that their employees who are also caregivers to an elderly family member have an impact on their bottom line as well,” O’Toole said. “Studies funded by AARP, The National Alliance for Caregivers and others estimate eldercare costs to employers at $29 billion annually.

“These costs are due to lost time at work by caregivers, time spent on the phone at work trying to resolve care giving problems and many other issues,” he said.

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